Environmental Ethics

Volume 18, Issue 1, Spring 1996

Sara Ebenreck
Pages 3-18

Opening Pandora’s Box
The Role of Imagination in Environmental Ethics

While the activity of imagination is present in much writing about environmental ethics, little direct attention has been given to clarifying its role. Both its significant presence and provocative theoretical work showing the central role of imagination in ethics suggest a need for discussion of its contributions. Environmental ethicists especially should attend to imagination because of the pervasive influence of metaphorical constructs of nature and because imaginative work is required to even partially envision the perspective of a nonhuman being. Without clear awareness of the limits of contemporary Western metaphoric constructs of nature, environmental ethicists may overlook or even contribute to the cultural extinction of ideas of nature present in the imaginative visions of indigenous cultures. In this article, I briefly review the reasons why the dominant Western philosophical tradition ranks imagination below the power of abstract reasoning, survey contemporary ideas about the role of imagination in ethics, and consider the implications of these ideas for environmental ethics. The work of imaginative empathy in constructing what might be the experience of nonhuman beings, the role of diverse metaphors and symbols in understanding nature, and the process of envisioning the possible future are developed as three central contributions of imagination to environmental ethics. Imaginative work is not peripheral, but complementary to the work of reason in shaping an environmental ethic.